With so many out-of-town music festivals currently under way across Southern Ontario, it’s reassuring that one doesn’t have to leave town for a July musical respite. The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened last night with a concert by the Escher Quartet at Koerner Hall. For the next three weeks, one will be able to find instrumental and vocal music including art song, chamber music, big band, gospel music and the National Youth Orchestra. Artistic Director Jonathan Crow has put together an eclectic array of pre-eminent artists from around the world and across Canada. The festival’s theme, Reflections of Wartime celebrates the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War with music that emerged from some of the darkest times of the past century. Ticketed events, pay-what -you-can, and free concerts will take place at mid-town venues such as UoT’s Walter Hall, Heliconian Hall, Church of the Redeemer and Koerner Hall.
One can easily forgive the quartet for deviating from the festival’s theme in its opening program. The originally scheduled Borodin Quartet cancelled at the last moment. No one could have been disappointed with the replacement. The program of Schumann, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky was a triumph of musical energy.
The program began with Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No.1. Perhaps it’s not too great a stretch to say (in keeping with the war theme) that the music emanated from the composer's own personal battles with depression, Nevertheless, following the introspective counterpoint of the opening, the clouds of his personal war seemed to lift. The sweetness of the ending of the first movement, the galloping energy of the Scherzo and the electrifying finale signalled at least a pause in his struggles that would eventually be his undoing.
The Escher Quartet’s balanced sonority, energy and precise playing made for a musically satisfying evening. Named after Morits Cornelis Escher, the world-famous twentieth century graphic artist, the quartet embodied the symmetry, passion and energy of the visual artist whose name they borrowed. Each member of the quartet (Adam Barnett, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Pierre Lapointe, viola; and Brook Speltz, cello) is an equal member of this ensemble in sonority and virtuosity. Fourteen years of playing together have served to give their music the sensitivity of a single instrument and the power suggestive of a symphony orchestra.
The energy of the playing only increased with the subsequent String Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 117 by Dmitri Shostakovich. The playing was of the highest order. The Escher Quartet was brilliant in this most challenging work with its jarring pizzicatos, atonal melodies, sumptuous chords, cadenzas and especially the driving rhythm of the work's frenetic, fugal conclusion.
Following intermission, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 concluded the program. The tunefulness and emotionally layered textures built to its joyful conclusion. It was enough to send this enthusiastic audience home in very fine spirits. The encore did more of the same. The very familiar theme of the second movement of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 could no doubt be heard all along Bloor Street as the audience left the hall.
Tonight, July 13th 2018 at 7:30pm in Walter Hall, the Toronto Summer Music Festival continues. Artistic Director Jonathan Crow joins pianist Luka Geniušas and members of the Escher Quartet in a program of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich entitled Mother Russia. For more information about TSMF, click here.
Toronto Summer Music Festival: A musical oasis from the city’s summer noise!
Opening Night with the Escher Quartet: Photo credit: James Ireland
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Review by David Richards
Toronto ON July 13th 2018